Special prosecutor appointed for pending charges against man accused in Deep Ellum beating

September 9, 2019
People gather around the Frank Crowley Courthouse Central Jury Room to see Austin Shuffield, 30, as he waits for a ride after he was released on a $1000 bond, Friday, March 29, 2019. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

A special prosecutor has been appointed to handle the criminal charges against a man accused of beating a woman in Deep Ellum in March.

The change comes after two of Austin Shuffield’s attorneys filed a motion last month saying the Dallas County district attorney’s office had shown bias in their handling of the cases.

Shuffield, 31, was filmed repeatedly punching L’Daijohnique Lee, 24, during an argument March 21.

He was charged with unlawful carrying of a weapon, assault, interfering with an emergency call and public intoxication — all misdemeanors. Police also referred a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony, to a Dallas County grand jury.

Shuffield’s attorneys Scott Palmer and Rebekah Perlstein announced Monday that Dallas defense attorney Russell Wilson will now take the lead on presenting the charges to a grand jury instead of county prosecutors.

Wilson, a former Dallas County prosecutor, is the former head of the public integrity unit at the district attorney’s office.

It’s unclear when the grand jury will hear any of those cases. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and it can take several months after an arrest for a case to go before a grand jury.

Shuffield’s attorneys said in a statement that they filed a motion Aug. 30 to disqualify the Dallas County district attorney’s office on the case because of “bias” the office has shown. Those documents are sealed, Palmer said.

“The District Attorney’s Office has demonstrated that their office is unable to make objective decisions on this matter by their actions of clearly intending to enforce laws only when it benefits their cases,” the attorneys said in a written statement.

Palmer said in an email that the attorneys felt that the DA’s office was influenced by public pressure throughout the investigation. He said it appeared that the office was selectively enforcing laws by adding and accepting “as many charges as possible” against Shuffield, while declining a charge for Lee.

Police had sought a felony criminal mischief charge against Lee who admitted to smashing the window of Shuffield’s pickup after the assault. The warrant was recalled when the DA’s office declined to prosecute the case.

The DA’s office confirmed that Wilson had been appointed as a special prosecutor for the case but said it “did not agree with Mr. Palmer’s legal analysis and conclusions publicized in this case.”

“It was out of fairness to the defendant and victim in the case, and to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety, that our office consented to the appointment of the Attorney Pro Tem to handle the matter,” the DA’s office said in a written statement.

The altercation between Shuffield and Lee was caught on cellphone video and shared widely, prompting protests calling for Shuffield to face stiffer charges.

Lee’s attorney, Lee Merritt, has called for Shuffield to face hate-crime charges based on the woman’s claim that Shuffield hurled racist slurs at her.

An attorney speaking for Shuffield at the time has said there’s no proof of racism in the case and called media coverage “one-sided.”

An arrest-warrant affidavit for Shuffield says he pulled a .45-caliber Glock from his waistband as he and Lee were arguing. When she saw the weapon, she said she would call 911 and he returned it to his waistband under his shirt, according to the affidavit.

Shuffield then knocked Lee’s phone out of her hand and she shoved him away, witnesses told police. He started punching Lee, then walked to his truck and called 911, police said.

Shuffield told police he had pulled the gun “in fear for his life” after Lee threatened to pepper-spray him, according to the affidavit.

Lee tossed a jump box, a device used to charge a car battery, through the windshield of Shuffield’s truck, the affidavit stated.

Shuffield has been out on bond since March 29, when he was booked into jail on the weapon charge.